RESULTS UK recently led a cross-party parliamentary delegation to Cambodia. This post will be the first in a four-part series reviewing how Cambodia is addressing health and education with support of overseas aid. Jess Kuehne, Health Advocacy Officer at RESULTS, looks at the impact Cambodia’s history has had on the country’s current state.

The first thing that probably springs to mind when most people think of Cambodia is Angkor, the ancient temples surrounded by Cambodian jungle; the UNESCO World Heritage site. Some might think of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that occurred during the late 1970s. But few will consider the astronomical impact the three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule actually had on the country.

Image from S-21 Prison where thousands of people were tortured and killed.
Image from S-21 Prison where thousands of people were tortured and killed.

In 1975, after five years of conflict, the Khmer Rouge toppled the existing Cambodian Government and began implementing a radical restructuring of the nation, aiming to transform the country into a giant agrarian cooperative. Urban populations were forcibly moved out of cities and made to become agricultural workers, turning the country into a massive labour camp. Educated individuals and anyone deemed an ‘intellectual’ was killed.

Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and executed, while many more died from starvation and disease. It is estimated that 1.7 million people – nearly one third of the population at the time – died during the Khmer Rouge rule.

Many of the people we met in Cambodia had their own personal stories to share. Chea Vantha, who heads VSO’s office in Cambodia told me about his own survival, and how he considered himself lucky that three members of his family survived the Khmer Rouge, while nine were killed. He was just eleven years old when he was living in Phnom Penh with his family. They had only moved there from his village a year earlier.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

When the Khmer Rouge took over the capital, they forced everyone to leave the city and Vantha was separated from his family. His parents, being small business owners, were killed almost immediately. He was forced to work in the rice fields with very little food. He described the availability of fish and shells in the fields, but the workers were unable to catch or eat them because otherwise the Khmer Rouge would have killed him, leaving him to survive on a diet of rice, insects and leeches.

This is how Vantha survived for over three years. When the Khmer Rouge fell, he returned to his village in search of his family. His village was completely abandoned except for an old women who recognised him and told him where he could find his older sister. When he found his sister, she was so weak and sick that she was unable to recognise her brother for three days. He nursed his sister back to health, and after she regained her strength, they left their village to head to Phnom Penh. Everyone else was returning to their villages, and by sheer luck they ran into their younger sister on the road back to their village. He described their reunion on the road as very emotional, “lots of crying”.

Vantha’s story is all too common in Cambodia. Due to the sheer scale of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, everyone in Cambodia was either affected themselves or knows someone who was affected. Our tour guide at the genocide museum in Phnom Penh told us that 38 members of her family died during Khmer Rouge – her brother was tortured and killed, her children starved to death. These personal histories are woven into the current state of affairs and help to explain the incredible resilience of the population.

In addition to wiping out nearly a third of its people, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the country’s infrastructure in its attempt to eradicate anything that became before its rule. This included roads, schools, hospitals and government institutions. Essentially, the country has had to rebuild itself from scratch, and without the guidance and expertise of a generation of individuals who had been killed.

Cambodia’s dark history makes it all the more remarkable to witness the journey the country has taken to where it is now. During our trip we witnessed amazing strides being made to improve health and education. Roads and health centres are being built, TB rates have been halved over the past decade, child mortality has significantly dropped, more children are attending school and learning to read, and the country carries with it a sense that it has been revitalised.

Our delegates expressed a ‘shared optimism’ that Cambodia is heading in the right direction and expressed that they were returning to the UK with ‘a positive view’ of Cambodia. While Cambodia continues to face many challenges, the changes it has achieved should be celebrated, and will be exemplified in the next three parts of this series.